Culture in Quarantine

Community activities such as choirs, yoga and dance classes, and other local providers help to strengthen the fabric of neighbourhood culture. How can the idea of ‘shop local’ increase sustainability for community activity providers as they move online during the shutdown?

As cultural activities shut down, both providers and participants are scrambling to reconnect online. My community choir, normally based in Peckham, rebooted on Zoom within a week of the social distancing order. The session starts with 30 people giddily trying to chat at once, excited to be together again, before we mute our mics and sing along with our choir leader. The mics are unmuted several times throughout the session by mutual agreement. We are happy to hear each other’s voices even though glitches and delays in sound transmission prevent us from all singing together in real time.

Everyone dealing with the new reality of social distancing, shut down or shelter-in-place will be swimming in online options for how to spend their time. The landscape for these activities has transformed overnight, with local choir leaders now competing for attention with global platforms and rock-star hosts. Gareth Malone, star of The Choir on BBC Two, has started the ‘Great British Home Chorus‘, live streaming singing sessions on YouTube daily, while Stephen Taberner, director of the popular Spooky Men’s Chorale in New South Wales, has set up ‘Massive Singlet‘, a weekly online choir of up to 500 people (the maximum allowed with a regular subscription on Zoom).

Most community activities were built solely on a model of face-to-face, physical interaction on their own premises or a rented space. ‘Shop local’ has long been a neighbourhood-driven campaign to insulate micro-businesses and local makers against competition from online retailers and large corporations. We crave our lost physical contact from these activities and will need it again in the future. In some ways, these local providers may be the safe keepers of the neighbourhood culture that will re-emerge once the crisis is over. With community and cultural activities now pivoting online, how can ‘shop local’ be applied to leisure activities to ensure their survival through the pandemic? What can local providers do to improve their sustainability through the crisis?

First, digital channels need to be established to reach existing or new communities, in the absence of an online network. Mind Body, a popular booking platform for local fitness and well-being classes, has pivoted quickly to allow their normal subscribers to find virtual classes offered by their usual local providers. On 27 March, that search returned around 650 upcoming virtual classes broadcast from the London area with prices ranging from free to £20 for one session. Within 3 days, the number had risen to over 1,200.

Second, online activities should retain as much of the interaction of the physical groups as possible. Activity leaders should remember why they set up their practice in the first place and what experience they wanted participants to have. As we all learn, quickly, how to use video chat and meeting platforms, it’s not enough to treat online communities as passive audiences. Participants are scrambling to find an active, home-based outlet for their interests, which is more than simply receiving disseminated videos and messages, Netflix style. People will, and should, demand that the full scope of the technology is used so that we can get back to sharing, experiencing, laughing with and being surprised by others.

What does this all mean for the future of community activities once the pandemic has passed? Everyone – leaders and participants – may experience a step change in their appreciation of digital engagement, creating a new revenue stream for local providers. For example, many activities can be made more accessible online to people of all abilities, no longer hindered by inaccessible buildings or transport, tailored to what can be done in the home. Movement Research in New York City is offering dance classes online where ‘all you need is enough space to stretch out on the floor and maybe a pillow or mat,’ altering their normal classes to be carried out in smaller living spaces. Physical groups can be augmented by virtual participants, who with the right technology, can interact with the group and approximate the lived experience.

How we engage with culture in online communities now will affect what people choose to do in the future. Of course, no one really knows when the pandemic will end, when things will be ‘back to normal,’ or how neighbourhood culture will be affected. Not all small businesses will be able to move online due to cash flow constraints, logistical issues or health concerns.

This is an extraordinary time in which almost every individual and business is innovating the way they live and conduct business. It’s sometimes challenging, depressing and scary. But meaningful online interaction can provide the pilot light that will reignite neighbourhood culture out in the open air, once we get there.